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To infinity … and beyond! ‘Lightyear’

June 20, 2022
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Sometimes, a project just sounds questionable on its face. You hear the pitch and, for whatever reason, you’re left wondering just who gave this idea the go-ahead. It sounds ridiculous, yet scores of decision-makers said yes.

In this case, those yeses led to “Lightyear.”

Did we really need an origin story for Buzz Lightyear from “Toy Story”? Specifically, an origin story for the character on whom the toy was based? It all seems so silly. That being said, this IS Pixar we’re talking about – this is not an outfit that is known for misfires. They’ve got a couple of hiccups on their resume, but for the most part, the work they do is generally both critically and commercially successful.

So a high floor is standard for Pixar. But just what kind of ceiling are we talking about? Again, this is weirdly high-concept – “Lightyear” is ostensibly young Andy’s favorite movie, the one that served as the inspiration for the toy Buzz Lightyear – so it’s obviously a bit more overtly meta than what we usually get from the studio. But the big question remains: Is it good?

And the answer is yes. It is good. Quite good, actually.

What we get from “Lightyear” is a legitimately solid space adventure, one with a compelling story, some good jokes and a few surprises. It’s a good-looking movie, of course (we’d expect nothing less from Pixar), and it has plenty of heart (ditto). It’s a bit more grown-up than the studio’s regular fare, but certainly suitable for all audiences. And as always, be prepared for an instance or two of emotional impact.

Adventure, excitement, humor and pathos – you know … Pixar.

Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) is a Space Ranger working for Star Command. When sensors locate an unexplored planet, he – along with his best friend and commanding officer Alisha Hawthorn (Uzo Aduba) and a rookie Ranger named Featheringhamstan (Bill Hader) – venture out to explore it. However, the environment quickly turns actively hostile, forcing them to attempt to flee. However, Buzz’s efforts aren’t quite enough, leaving the ship stranded and its large crew marooned.

One year later, the castaways have used their technology and know-how to develop a nascent colony on the planet, now known as T’Kani Prime. However, they’re still trying to get home, with the biggest obstacle being a lack of stable hyperspace fuel crystals. When an experimental crystal is created, Buzz volunteers to test it. The test – which sees the crystal destabilize – lasts just four minutes, but due to relativistic effects, four years have passed on the planet.

But Buzz keeps trying. Test after test, destabilization after destabilization – and four years pass for every four minutes of flight. His friends age in a seeming instant; he watches as Hawthorn gets married, starts a family, grows old and … the inevitable. Meanwhile, his lone consistent companion is a robot cat named SOX (Peter Sohn).

Decades later – and with the help of SOX – there’s finally a stable fuel. But when Buzz tests it – against the orders of the new colony commander, by the way – he winds up traveling even further into the future, landing 22 years later and discovering T’Kani Prime is under attack by a mysterious robot army.

There are a scant few holdouts outside the colony’s laser-protected perimeter – including Izzy (Keke Palmer), an enthusiastic youngster with a connection to Buzz’s past. With this ragtag group, it’s up to Buzz to try and save the colony from a mysterious and powerful enemy, but this enemy might be too much for even the great Buzz Lightyear and his new allies to overcome – particularly when the source of the adversary’s power becomes apparent.

Given my preexisting affinity for Pixar, I was always likely to enjoy this one. But I didn’t anticipate how much I was going to dig it. The conceit seemed like something that would play as gimmicky and/or one-note, but instead, “Lightyear” becomes its own thing, a solid rip-roarer of a space adventure that requires no foreknowledge of the character.

Now I’ll grant that there are some jokes and references that won’t play if you’re not familiar with the “Toy Story” films, but none of them undermine the narrative or the overall experience. You’ll pull a few extra chuckles if you catch the winks and nods, but my take is that you’d have a good time regardless.

Director Angus McLane does a good job in creating something that captures the spirit of Pixar while also managing to be a little different from the studio’s usual fare. There’s a throwback vibe to it, a rollicking adventure story that elicits a nice blend of novelty and nostalgia. It’s seriously tough to NOT have fun with this one.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering – yes, there are a couple of heartstring-tugging moments, because of course there are.)

As for the casting, well … these folks are having a blast. Chris Evans does some great work, finding ways to make the role his own even as he tonally pays homage to Tim Allen’s take on the character. It’s different, but you can definitely hear the effort to bridge the gap. The supporting cast is packed with quality performances – literally everybody is good. There are a couple of highlights, though – Palmer’s Izzy is a standout, as is Taika Waititi as one of her cohort. Peter Sohn is an utter delight as the voice of SOX; he’s got a running gag involving interchangeable beep-boops and meows that made me laugh every time. But again – everyone gets it done.

“Lightyear” is a bit of a surprise. Not in terms of general quality, obviously – we are talking about Pixar here – but in terms of the specifics. It’s a fun and exciting adventure story with real heart, one that uses its inspiration as a jumping off point but isn’t beholden to it.

Strap in for this one, because “Lightyear” will take you to infinity … and beyond.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 20 June 2022 11:42

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